Unemployment benefits 101: four basic questions answered

Like last year, Congress is debating whether to reauthorize extended unemployment insurance. At stake as early as January are benefits for some 1.8 million Americans, including some 430,000 people who lost jobs as recently as July. Although Republicans and Democrats say they plan to reauthorize the law, they differ on how – or even whether – to pay for it.

Here are the different scenarios and ramifications of what could happen: 

By , Staff writer

1. What if Congress does nothing?

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    A poster explains ways to file for unemployment insurance benefits in Menlo Park, Calif.
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This depends where you are in the world of unemployment benefits. If you are recently laid off, you can collect from your state for 26 weeks – or about six months. This won’t change no matter what Congress does. However, if you were laid off in the first week of July, you will exhaust state benefits in the beginning of January. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) estimates this could affect 431,100 workers who get nothing further.

People who have been unemployed longer than six months are receiving Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC). With EUC, there are four tiers which ultimately would potentially add another 53 weeks, depending on the state.

However, if Congress does nothing, the individual would lose their benefits once they had completed whatever tier they are in. For example, if someone had been unemployed for 60 weeks (Tier II) , they would not be able to move to Tiers III and IV. This would mean they would potentially lose out on another 18 weeks of unemployment benefits in EUC.

NELP estimates that the total number of people on EUC who would lose their benefits in January alone is 708,000 people.  

At least 5 million Americans would lose entitlement to federal benefits in 2012 if the current programs are not renewed.

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